Singled Out: Matt Pless' Ashtray

Matt Pless

Folk-punk singer/songwriter Matt Pless recently released his new LP "Tumbleweed" and to celebrate we asked him to share the story behind the single "Ashtray". Here is the story:

If you wanna simplify it, the title of my song "Ashtray" came about because I smoked an ashtray-worth of cigarettes in the half hour that it took to write the song. If you wanna get really deep into the technical process of how each and every line was inspired, crafted and executed, I would have to explain it like this.

I had been playing music full time for quite a while. I was tired of finding myself performing at shows that were as empty as my pockets and was frustrated at the state of my life, the world, and the indie art community. I had been listening to a lot of obscure music circulating in the punk scene and had stumbled across a song by another artist which included a lyric that said: "If I found God anywhere it would be by the tracks". From there, inspiration threw me my own variation on the line that would open "Ashtray" "Someone asked me if I found God, yes, I think we've met a couple times. But, I'm not sure if it was Him 'cause I can't look Her in the eye"

Next came a lyric that came from parts unknown. "All I heard were warnings from the prophets in the Brooklyn night". This lyric made no sense in relation to the first line I had written, so I took a walk and thought about it for a minute. Shortly after a bit of brainstorming, the lyric evolved into "All I heard were warnings from my conscience in the guilty night"

That sounded better, and I felt that familiar buzz in my head that comes whenever I stumble upon the inspiration for an important song. So I sat down, looked up at the ceiling and a flurry of lines followed in rapid succession and the song "Ashtray" was completed in a little over 30 minutes.

When I am putting lyrics together, I try to keep in mind a statement I once read by another songwriter, Sam Cooke, who said something like when you are writing you have to be having a conversation; you have to be able to talk it. Then you have written a good lyric. That philosophy stuck with me. I tend to use that approach in a lot of my work and I think "Ashtray's" lyrics are a good example of applying this technique. I wrapped up the chorus with the refrain "I don't believe in nothing anymore" a line which originally came to me in the form of "I don't care about nothing anymore" which I felt wasn't accurate at all, given the fact that I care about a lot of things despite the rather nihilistic theme that flowed through "Ashtray". I thought a moment and stumbled upon the final form of the lyric which I felt could be taken in two ways depending on the perspective of the listener, "I don't believe in nothing anymore".

That obviously had to be the new "hook" in the tune. The double entendre it created implied that one could either accept that they no longer believed in anything, a line that embodied complete hopelessness, or that they no longer believed in nothing, which proposed the concept of the listener finally believing in something...instantly giving the lyric a much more hopeful outlook.

When it comes to writing, sometimes I try to give the listener a blank face, let them look inside and see themselves. Depending on the type of expression they project, maybe they will stop and think a moment and get a better look at who they are.

Hearing is believing. Now that you know the story behind the song, listen for yourself right here!

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